泥の河 (Doro no kawa)
Running time: 105 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Depending on your film tastes the 1970's and early 80's in Japanese film were either a time of important creative transition or a period of stagnation when sensationalism and cheap nostalgia trumped artistic vision. Both viewpoints carry a certain truth. Due to the collapse of the studio system and the decline in box office receipts many directors entered into the new frontier of independent filmmaking, as epitomized by the Art Theater Guild. This gave them a forum for new ideas and innovative new filmmaking methods. Conversely, the surviving major studios either became extremely conservative in their output (Shochiku with its "Tora-san" series) or pandered to the lowest common denominator to get bums in seats (Nikkatsu with its Roman Porno films). One thing was certain -- the kind of films produced by Golden Age directors like Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa were pretty thin on the ground. The former two had passed away years before and the latter, Kurosawa, saw his career take a disastrous turn with 1970's "Dodes'ka-den". In 1981, though, a director came along from the pioneering indie scene, but with a film that hearkened back to the shomen-geki masterpieces of the late 1940's and 50's. That director was Kohei Oguri, and his film was "Muddy River".
Set in Osaka, a decade after the end of WW2, "Muddy River" tells the story of 9-year-old Nobuo (Nobutaka Asahara) and his family. His father (Takahiro Tamura) and mother (Yumiko Fujita) run an udon restaurant on the banks of the Kyū-Yodo River. Life is finally good for the family after years of post-war sacrifices. Nobuo's father sometimes wonders if the hardships of the past decade were worth anything, if he shouldn't have perished, like so many of his friends, in the hills of Manchuria during the war. The one bright spot for him is his son though. Nobuo, he says to his wife, is his greatest accomplishment. For the most part Nobuo is too young to appreciate what his parents have gone through, but he is beginning to sense a bigger and more brutal world beyond the family noodle shop. After witnessing the the neighbourhood horse cart man being trampled by his own horse Nobuo's life begins to change. Shortly after this traumatic incident a houseboat moors itself across from the family's restaurant. Nobuo quickly makes friends with the two children who live on the boat, Kiichi (Minoru Sakurai) and his older sister Ginko (Makiko Shibata). Nobuo and Kiichi play games along the banks of the river and try and spy the giant carp that is said to live in its muddy bottom; but a visit to Kiichi's houseboat reveals a life that Nobuo never knew existed. Keiichi and his sister often appear dirty and malnourished, and neither of them attend school. Their father is dead and their mother is only a disembodied voice that emanates from the back cabin of the boat. The adults along the river gossip that the boat travels the waterways of Osaka and that Kiichi and Ginko's mother prostitutes herself to get money. While somewhat alien Nobuo can't help becoming friends with his new young neighbours and soon their life and the life of his family begin to intermingle.
Like so many filmmakers who came to prominence in the 70's and 80's, Kohei Oguri began his career making pink films, as well as working as an assistant director to such filmmakers as Masahiro Shinoda and Nobuhiko Obayashi. You would think that with cinematic mentors who created such bold films as "Double Suicide" and "House" that Oguri's work would revel in the expwerimental and the avant-garde. Not so, at least not with "Muddy River", his directorial debut. Based upon the novel of the same name by Teru Miyamoto, "Muddy River" is populated by the little folks, the downtrodden and the unsung, the kind of people who so fascinated Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naurse and Kinoshita. He and cinematographer Shohei Ando shoot the film in black-and-white to drive this point home; but don;t expect a story of conflicting generations and the dissolution of the Japanese family à la "Tokyo Story". The main concern of "Muddy River" is showing how circumstance can mold people's lives. Nobuo's father made his way back from Manchuria has anchored himself in his restaurant and has become a loving, almost doting, father to his son. Had the hardships of post-war Osaka been too much, though, he could have died, like Kiichi and Ginko's father (who we learn was also a veteran of the Second Sino-Japanese War). Without the security of a husband and the noodle shop who is to say if Nobuo's mother would have had to resort to drifting along the river, selling herself to keep food on the table? Little Nobuo may only get inklings of these vagaries of fate, but seeing events through his eyes the "there but by the grace of God go I" nature of the plot becomes clearer the longer we watch the film.
The most remarkable thing about "Muddy River", especially in comparison with so many 70's and 80's films from Japan that have become painfully dated over the years, is just how timeless it feels. Like Kiichi and Ginko's houseboat, the film isn't fettered to one time and place. Yes, the film is set in the mid-50's, but the struggles of its characters are not specific to one point in time. Poverty, hardship, war, the coming of age of a young child and the mono no aware, "the pathos of things", thought by so many to be a peculiarity of Japanese aesthetics, are common to all people's lives. Watching a film like "Muddy River" we can easily see ourselves in innocent Nobuo, feeling his way through new emotions and situations. We can feel the weariness of Nobuo's father, but also his hope represented by his son. We can even, if we care to admit it, begin to understand Kiichi and Ginko's mother, badly damaged by life, but doing her best to carry on by any means necessary. It's this universal quality of "Muddy River" that has made it so well-respected in Japan, and even saw it nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1981 Academy Awards. Sadly it's a film that has now been eclipsed in many ways by the endless retrospectives the filmmakers that is so directly references. It's a shame. Hopefully Oguri's reputation will be reassessed sooner than later, and "Muddy River" will get the lasting international recognition it deserves.